Australian Biography

Charles Birch - full interview transcript

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Why are you a Christian?

Oh, because I was brought up that way. If I'd been brought up in Thailand I'd be a Buddhist. I mean, that's the most direct answer. Then you can say, 'Well why didn't you reject it?' Well I reject the form that I was brought up in, but I felt there were certain aspects of it which I wanted to retain which were valuable, so I went on searching for another interpretation of Christianity. And one of the things I've been interested in is confronting people with alternatives to the traditional interpretation. Now I'm not saying that I'm rewriting, you know, 'I think Jesus should have said this, that and the other,' but I'm saying, 'What I'm finding to me quite consistent with the biblical picture of the sort of person that Jesus was and the sorts of goals that he had in life and so on. The things that he regarded as important.' So that's why I'm willing to call myself a Christian though a lot of people say, 'This isn't Christianity, this is some other version, some sort of, funny sort of liberal philosophy that you're pursuing.'

So in your ecological view of God, where does the person of Jesus Christ sit?

Oh, Jesus is a person just like any other person and has access to God, I mean, is open to the influences of God in terms of the values that influenced his behaviour and so on. And the things that motivate him. And Jesus said, 'Take up your cross and follow me.' In other words, it's not much use saying that, in fact, if he's got something up his sleeve which I haven't got. So that I think basically Jesus is a human person who has, I would say, like all other human beings a divine aspect to his life. But divinity and humanity are like that. They're not separate like that.

You've said that one of the reasons why you had to keep religion in your life when you were young was not only because you needed to explain things that science couldn't explain, but also because religion had delivered for you, it had delivered you from a burden of guilt when you understood forgiveness. What part does that notion of forgiveness play in your understanding of Christianity today?

Oh, I think it's very important. In my work, in the department which I was working in, for example, [if] I came to cross-purposes with somebody. Then it's important not to continue being at cross-purpose but to find some way out, which might involve my expressing my sorrow that it's happened to the extent which I'm responsible for, which I've done on occasion. And so that forgiveness opens up the possibility of new relationships, which is important I think. And this is why I think it's true to say that if you don't forgive other people then God can't forgive you, because you're in an unforgiving state. I mean it's all very logical, nothing mystical about it.

In terms of the everyday choices you have to make, the ethical choices about how you live your life and what you choose to do and what you avoid doing, is Christianity still your basic guide?

Yes. I would have the image, I think, ingrained in the background of my mind, the image of Jesus as the most complete human being in many respects that I know of. So that, you know, it's quite interesting, my mind will ply back to some text I learnt in my degenerate youth. But it still has a meaning but a different meaning now. So that, there's a richness of experience and history that somehow or other was embedded in my brain, that I still draw upon.

Is there some underlying principle out of that Christianity that you hold as a really important tenet for living your life?

Oh, yes. The principle of persuasive love, an uncoercive situation. I mean coercion nearly always has bad effects so that, if it's possible, the persuasive is the role that I ... well I think that persuasive is the role that God always relates to. It's the role that I should have in human situations. I should persuade and not try and coerce. Unless you win the other person there's not much point in relating to that person, if you think there are differences between you.

Moving out into the broader picture again, you worked very hard for the movement for the environment and so on, did you feel an obligation to any other political agenda? Did you take a role in any political activity?

Well, the main one that became important was the anti-Vietnam protests and particularly the anti-conscription protests. I had been in the US at California, teaching at Berkeley, for a whole semester at the time of the hippies and the flower movement and the big protest against the Vietnam war and kids, students, were being put in gaol because they were against conscription. And I was very impressed by the role that the staff at the university took, in which they formed, what they called, a committee on conscience. These were members of the staff who were going to support any student who was anti-conscription, who were going to be put in gaol, they'd help with legal fees and things like that. Support them in any way possible. So when I got back to Sydney and there was the same thing happening in Sydney, students in their numbers were being conscripted, many protesting, with great opposition to the war, I formed a group in Sydney, got other members of staff around, we formed a group called Committee on Conscience in which we had leading students and about a dozen staff and we would meet regularly and we provided free legal service to students simply because we had in our midst legal people who were willing to provide services free. We visited students in gaol who were conscripted. And we had big meetings on the front lawn, you know, against conscription. And we put ourselves on the line in the sense that we were apparently disobeying the Crimes Act, you see. It was illegal to persuade students or to support students against some legal obligation, which was to be conscripted. And that was in many ways one of the cathartic experiences I had in my whole career in the university because you got to know students well, they got to know the staff were with them, and it was very, very motivating. That was great. A very important time. And some of the friendships I established then I still retain. Some of them were my own biology students, one in particular. And others have gone out into other areas of life. But they were all very much challenged by their own feelings against the Vietnam war. They didn't want to participate in any way and we were helping them to pursue the goals they thought were important because we thought they were important also.

What was it that made it so cathartic for you?

Say what?


Oh, I think it was feeling that goodness, without this group we had, Committee on Conscience, students would feel alone and struggling alone. And here we had people who were full of, I mean, they were really delighted that there was some support, they were not alone in the world. I think that's what it was. And think that was a cathartic experience for the students. They actually used that term, I remember that. I thought, that's a good word, that describes my own feeling about it.

And there was a real feeling of connection, coming together and relationships in a good cause?

Oh, very much so, yes. We had a group which would meet regularly every week and any student who wanted to come in and talk about the problems. Then it had interesting ramifications because one of these students was the head of what was called, Students for Democratic Society, which is a pretty Left-wing outfit, and regarded as an enemy by the Vice-chancellor, you see, because they were the people involved in sit-ins and all that sort of stuff, and it became known that I had been in touch with this lad when he was in gaol and that I'd communicated to his disciples, you know, to the other guys, that this is a message for you. And it was said that I was being rather subversive in the university, but ... So that was just interesting ramifications because there were extremist as well as people who were not quite so extreme.

In the party political sense, where do you sit?

Oh, I've always been a Labor supporter. I've never supported the conservatives.

And yet your work helped found the Democrats?

Oh, well, I thought the Democrats was a great movement because I thought Mr Chipp had the right ideas. Actually I tried to persuade him not to form a political party, but to form a movement called New Ways, New Ways Ahead, or something. But I think he was right, he formed a political movement. And, I supported that to the extent that if I was asked to address, on the whole I would tend to do that. And I remember going to one big meeting that Chipp had organised in the Melbourne Town Hall, I think it might have been the inaugural meeting. And Sir Mark Oliphant and I were there. There was a plane strike so I had to get a little tiny plane to take us down to Melbourne. That was a very exciting meeting because here we were putting a new political thing on the platform that everybody was very excited about. And he was a very ... I mean Chipp himself was a very charismatic and very emotional person, he threw himself into these things.

In the broader sense, have there been any other political activities?

I don't think so.

... that you've been engaged in?

Don't think so.

Now, relationships have always been very important to you in your life and you see them really as what makes the world go round. What do you feel are your obligations in a relationship, what do you think are the most important things that a human being has to do to make the relationship with another person work well?

Goodness, that's a sort of psychological question, isn't it?

It could be a religious question?

Yes, I suppose so. I suppose the most important thing is to regard every individual as having a value in themselves, for themselves, to themselves, which must be respected at all costs. So, I don't want to be manipulative in any way, my role has simply been one of relating in a persuasive sort of way. I don't think I have any rules about this. But I think acceptance is very important. And it's one of the things that I thought was important at the Wayside Chapel. Everybody who walked in, no matter who they were, immediately they felt they were accepted. It didn't mean that their way of life was accepted, but those individuals were accepted and were free to express themselves. There was, it was an inclusive group. Now the trouble about other churches is that they're non-inclusive. They don't include gays, and prostitutes, and what-nots. At least, they're not welcome with open doors. I don't suppose they shut the door, but the Wayside Chapel made no distinction. It's very important.

But there's acceptance and persuasion. What sort of things are you persuading, to persuade people to ... ?

Oh, I'm not trying to persuade anybody, I suppose, except during the conscription period that we talked about. I would be wanting to be very persuasive about the harm that the Vietnam war was doing to individual people as well as to nations.

And currently of course, you are working hard to persuade people to be more concerned about the environmental future of the world?

Yeah. Yeah.

And to see some purpose in their own lives?


How are you living at the moment? What, what does your life consist of since your so-called retirement?

Well, most of the time I have spent really writing. I spend a lot of the day at a word processor.

Do you enjoy that?

Yeah, I love that.

What is it that you love?

Well, the interesting thing is that I hated sitting down and writing it by hand because I can't read my own handwriting and the only person who could read it was my secretary. Well, I don't have a secretary any more, when I retired. And I find something, sitting in front of a word processor with just a few ideas, then everything begins to flow because it's a very strange piece of machinery. But it has a hypnotic effect on me. And it's a wonderful thing that just sort of came into existence just about the time I retired, as far as becoming a practical thing for individuals to own. So I do that.

Did you learn to type properly?

I simply got a little book called Learn to Type. And I sat down for about a week in one vacation and taught myself how to do it. So I'm not terribly good, but I'm good enough. I type rather fast making lots of mistakes but it's easy to correct on a word processor.

Who are your friends now?

Oh, I have a number of — most of my friends are about a third of my age. I have a few people, very few people, who are my same age and mostly they're over there in the United States, interestingly enough. They're people I spent time with in the various places I've lived in the United States. I ...

Do they come and visit you from the United States?

Yes. Yes. All of them. All of them have been here.

Who have been some of the more interesting visitors?

Well, there's been Professor Dobzhansky, Columbia University. Professor Moore and his wife from Columbia University. Well, Dobzhansky came with his wife too. And a much younger one who was a student I influenced when I was lecturing at the University of California at Berkeley, he's now a Professor of Biology at University of California in Los Angeles and he became interested in the origin of mind, mind and consciousness, which my last book was about that. And, but he [has] a much more computer way of looking at it. But he spent six months here sort of trying to get a Whiteheadian view of things.

Frank would like us, for you, to describe your relationship with Paul Ehrlich because of the footage they shot the other day. So I'm going to ask a question. Do you still stay well in touch with people who are leading the world environment movement?

Well, some of them. The person I have most contact with is Paul Ehrlich, who is possibly the most informed of the lot. I have some contact with people like Lester Brown who runs the Worldwatch Institute but that's [at a] less personal sort of level because I've never known him to the extent which I know Paul Ehrlich. And I see Paul certainly once a year, if not more than that. And he writes so many books that he sort of keeps one up-to-date. At least one a year. See, I'm being kept up-to-date to some extent and I keep up-to-date also through Lester Brown's organisation, Worldwatch Institute. [INTERRUPTION]

Could you do that again without mentioning Lester Brown, just talk about Ehrlich?

It's okay, I'll ... Have you maintained your friendship with Paul Ehrlich?

Yes, we see each other at least once a year. I mean, if I'm in California I will usually call in and see him at Stanford University, or if it's in the summertime, on one occasion I visited him in the Rocky Mountain biological laboratory where he goes for three months every summer. And we correspond a lot.

Does he still like to come to Australia?

Yes, he comes almost every year. And usually it's to give some meeting. But this year he talked to some big meeting. He always talks to some meetings when he comes. But he also likes to, he's done field work here, on the Barrier Reef, and also in the bush around Sydney with birds. So he has some projects down here as well as being interested in telling us the latest state of the world. But, no, I learnt a lot from him.

And at a personal level, are you feeling any of the biological effects of ageing?

Not really. I'm lucky I think. I think I'm very fortunate. I ...

Do you take good care of yourself?

Well, I mean, I exercise a lot. Every day I exercise in the morning by going down to the gymnasium at Bondi Surf Club and going into the surf. I don't know if that has anything to do with it. And I don't stay awake, I don't stay up too late at night. But I'm not terribly elaborate the way some people are. Like Paul Ehrlich, there's so many things he won't eat that have the slightest bit of cholesterol in it, all this sort of stuff. I don't bother too much about that. Well I don't each much meat, but I'm not too fussy. No, I'm very fortunate. I'd hate to be sick.

Do you still maintain a close relationship with nature? With animals and the natural world?

Well, I love having little birds that visit me every day. Two curra ... on my balcony. Two currawongs, two miners, two rainbow lorikeets and, sometimes, two little ducks that come swimming in the swimming pool. I call them, whistle to them when they come up and I drop some bread and milk down to them. Yeah, that's fine. I love animals. I like to be surrounded by animals.

Do you have any that live with you?

Yeah, I just got one, one cream Burmese pussycat who's now 14.

Have you always been a cat lover?

Yeah, always.

Why do you ...

I remember the Professor of Zoology, Professor Agar in Melbourne, on one of his lectures on animal behaviour, he said, 'Those of you who like the cats and dogs, that means you're going to have lots of children. You'll like children.' I didn't see the connection but I suppose it's there's, something there. Yeah, I love, I love cats.

Well, it was a fairly inaccurate prediction?

Very unaccurate as far as I'm concerned.

You never thought of marriage or ...

I think I come from a rather unmarriage-able bunch of family. See I was thinking the other day that on my father's side, he had two brothers, one of whom was married only, my father was married, and then he had four sisters, only one who ever married and that was very late in life. My mother had two brothers that never married. See perhaps there's an unamarriage-able gene.

Well see, that doesn't fit with your belief about the lack of importance of genetics. Is there an environmental explanation that could show that in your family traditions?

Well, there's always exceptions to these rules.

Exceptions to the rules are things that you've always found easy to accommodate?

Oh, yes.

You believe in a complex world, rather than a simple world.

Yeah, but not too complex.

You don't have difficulty in the paradox?

You don't make things unnecessarily complex. I mean, you look for the simple possibilities, but then you are pretty careful about them. But, you see, I think simplicity in looking for a meaning to life, simplicity in trying to understand the world, is likely to lead to great error, because the world is more complex than our simple model. So you've got to be very careful of simple things, but don't get too, too involved in complexity.

But you seem in your thought quite often to look at what other people would regard as a paradox, or as things that are oppositional, and say both are true? Like you have no difficulty with science and religion. And you accept that. Do you think that this is an essential part of the way you look at things and that you often see the two things that seem to be contradictory are in fact complementary?

I think I tend to the radical, in the sense that I question the accepted orthodoxy of almost everything, including science, certainly with religion. So that I'm way out in one sense.

Has this ever got you into trouble with your scientific colleagues?

Oh, yes. Yes. Because most of them belong to the establishment.

Did they tell you this?

Being a radical in the conservative world of science, did that ever bring you criticism or even derision?

It certainly brought criticism, I think, yes, yes.

In what form?

Well, I used to think, for example, in the things like the Australian Academy of Science and so on, their pronouncements would be written in such a way that it would be a miracle to expect anyone to read them, yet see they were supposed to influence the world. I would go for a much more radical thing. And the most radical thing I ever said, and they never forgave me for, was I said, a quotation from Whitehead actually, 'It's more important to be interesting than true.' Now I didn't say it's important to be untrue, but don't say that the truth is the only thing you've got to aim at. You must first of all be interesting and that's terribly important if you're going to try and influence anybody in a lecture or anything else. In these official bureaucratic things, that doesn't seem to count to be interesting. But it's very important. And they thought that was a very dreadful thing to say. Science is for truth, no matter if it's interesting or not. I think if it is true, it'll be interesting.

Your search for meaning and your desire to make sense of things, has that sometimes attracted comments from your colleagues?

Oh, yes. In the sense that I'm talking out of my field. And that is a very strong criticism and it comes from almost any profession you like. You can't talk about economics, I mean, I can't talk about economics, you're an ecologist. You can't talk theology because you haven't done any formal courses on theology. This sort of thing, yeah. And, the Vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney used to ask me, 'How are the eco-nuts today?' Well, it's pretty clear what he thought of people who had ecological ideas from that statement. And, but that didn't matter much, that's fine. It didn't worry me.

And when you share with your colleagues your desire to make sense of these things that can't easily be made sense of, with present biology at any rate, and you talk about feelings and you talk about meaning and purpose and these kinds of ideas, how do they react to that?

Well, the main reaction will be, 'If this is something on which we can't agree, why bother about it?' see. And, my difference is this, that I think there is an area of knowledge that you can put a line around and say, 'We can be pretty sure in that area.' And scientists mostly study within that area. And then I say, 'There are fuzzy edges and in these fuzzy edges there are very interesting ideas and things.' And I tend to be very interested now in the fuzzy edges and to try and find some clarity there. Not to be just confined to the thing of which we can be certain. I don't think certainty is the most important element in our lives. You don't have to be certain about everything.

Well, maybe the things that are now certain were ones with the fuzzy edges and perhaps ...

That's right. Well, now maybe that is the case and it was people who were prepared to move out a little bit into the unknown area and think of other ideas. In fact, one thought that struck me very much [was] by a very famous chemist called Edward Doisy, who discovered Vitamin K, he said, 'Discovery in science consists of looking at the same thing, observing the same things but having thoughts that nobody else had ever had.' See, in other words, your boundary is going out beyond the — so I used to say to the students, 'Can you have some thoughts that nobody has every had? See if you can. Now that's imagination. And discovery. And it's a bit fuzzy. See, nobody has ever had these thoughts. Try and get into that area. It's worth worrying about.'

You've had in your life an element of research, an element of teaching, and an element of public advocacy for various ideas. Is there any one of those strands that has given you particular satisfaction?



I like communication because it's not just a lone act. I mean, research is a pretty lonely sort of operation. You do it best essentially on your own. The sort of stuff that I've been involved in anyway. You know, I haven't been in one of these laboratories and had red telephones which are ringing up somebody across the way or somebody across the world to find out if they discovered this bit of gene before somebody else. So that research is a bit of a lonely operation. Whereas teaching is not a lonely operation at all. It's very communicative. It's very fascinating. You get feedback from the students. I walked into David Jones store the other day at Bondi Junction and some woman walked up to me and said, 'You won't remember me but I think you're Professor Birch.' I said, 'Yes.' She said, 'Well you lectured to me 40 years ago and I was a pharmacy student,' she said, 'I never forget.' Well I mean that's fun isn't it. You know. It's the feedback comes back later on, very often. And I think that's one of the satisfactions of teaching.

You've opted for relationships with groups, with relationships with students en masse, rather than an individual pair-bonded, if you like, relationship. And your satisfactions come with those relationships with larger groups. And yet, you actually seem quite a shy person. Do you think you are shy?



I think I was. I think I was terribly shy. It was awful when I was learning the piano and be asked to play something in front of the visitors; that was shattering for me. I was shy in that sort of way.

What overcame that?

Oh, I think, being more with students, you know, on the same basis, I think.

You clearly also don't very much like talking about your own personal feelings and your private life, you feel embarrassed, you seem embarrassed when those sorts of questions are asked. Why do you think this is?

I don't think it's very interesting. I'm interested in the world out there. I'm interested in things that happen. I'm not interested in analysing myself. Other people can do that if they want, but they're not going to get much information from me to help them.

Well, I'm not sure whether this question relates to what goes on inside yourself or outside yourself, but what do you think is going to happen when you die?

I don't know. But what my philosophy of life is, and includes the possibility that, I would say even the probability that, anything of value which we have achieved in the world for our own lives —and this applies not just to human beings, to every creature — is in some way preserved in the memory of God. So that we contribute back from that which we have received. And this is why God is a changing God because God benefits from the creation in that sort of way. So that, I think it's very unlikely that there will be any individual survival, but there will be some sort of way in which God's memory has received a bit of flip. So I don't know. Of course I can't know the answer to that question. It doesn't worry me much. But I think there has to be some form of eventual survival of what has been achieved in the total creation because otherwise I'd be — you can't say there's a purpose to the universe. If it all blacks out into the end into nothingness, I mean, we know the world is going to come to an end, it's either going to be burnt up or frozen up, and so we will all, I mean, there won't be any human beings on the face of the earth after many billions of years maybe, so what's the point of it. The point of it presumably has to be that what has been of value in the whole of creation, the experiences that have been on the face of the earth, are saved in the memory of God. I mean, that's the general hypothesis. Don't ask me to prove it. But I just simply say there has to be something of that sort to make sense for the rest of the story.

And on what basis do you differentiate between good experience worth keeping and bad experience?

That is very difficult. You know, the wheat and the tares, it's very difficult to know which is the good wheat and which is weeds. But eventually, don't make your judgement too early, is the meaning of that parable. You know, don't try and rip out these things that you think are weeds in the crop because wait until you're sure, a little bit sure, on the harvest time you can make the difference between the seeds of the good and the seeds of the bad. So I think one has to be very wary. I've made some bad judgements on people in the past because I made up my mind too soon. So I think it's best not, don't judge, is better isn't it? You know, if possible, don't make too strong judgements about people before you know enough.

So, don't make too strong judgements about people, but what about your own acts, about your own behaviour? Do you see good and bad in that?

Oh, yes. I mean if I'm selfish, that's bad. But again, see, I don't think I think about these things too consciously. But what I do know [is] that if I do something which is helpful to another person, I feel happy about that. So that's, is that being selfish? I mea,n I do things which bring me satisfaction and the things which bring me satisfaction are not essentially selfish things I think. They're things which in some way or other relate to some other person, or some other being. I mean, I think it's important that I try and make my little pussycat have a happy life. Now that is satisfactory to me if the pussycat is happy, but it's also important to the cat to have experiences that are pleasant.

So there's an inter-dependency?

Yes, there is, yes. But I know what experiences are valuable, the ones that are important to me. And the ones that are not important to me.

And would you say that now, really having a very unhappy first 20 years of your first years of your life ...

Well, it was not that bad, but it was not all easygoing.

Would you describe yourself now as a happy person?

Oh, yes, sure.

And what does your happiness really consist of?

That I'm doing things that give me satisfaction. And I have goals and motives and something creative. I mean, if I feel I'm being creative in some way up here, mostly, then that gives me happiness.

[end of interview]